The Portuguese-born pianist reconnects so masterfully with the improvisational spirit of historic composers and applies such dedication and insight in her instruction and scholarship, her former teacher and colleague Gil Miranda, emeritus professor at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, says “she fulfills our best hope for an artist – someone who puts her special gift to the service of life and humanity.”
Mascolo-David’s 2007 release of Volume 2 of Valsas Brasileiras by Brazilian composer Francisco Mignone (1897-1986), relatively unknown before her vivid recreation of his romantic late-life waltzes, and her performance last year at the prestigious Teatro Sao Luiz in Lisbon were crowning achievements. These were rivaled only by what critics called “an affecting and imaginatively chosen” 2004 recital in Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall.
A career transformed
She got there, of course, with the requisite years of practice and also by overcoming a paralyzing hardship that ultimately led to her professional niche as a scholar/performer.
“It got to a point where I could not play anymore,” she says, recalling a depressing period in 1990 when tendonitis entirely crippled her hands. “It was horrible. I was faced with the idea that maybe I would have to find something else to do, and the question was what?”
Mascolo-David focused on a master’s program in musicology and experimented with various therapies that didn’t cure her tendonitis. Eventually, a friend suggested she visit the Dorothy Taubman Institute of Piano in New York, which resulted in two intensive years learning an entirely new playing technique.
“It’s basically a scientific approach that unburdens physical limitations through physical coordination of fingers, hands, and arms,” she says. “I figured I would try it with everything I had, and then I’d know if it worked. I went after it with heart and soul.”
Accepting the Mignone challenge
By 1992, playing pain-free again, she possessed both the inspiration and advanced technical skills to challenge repertoire she wouldn’t have considered earlier, including the 24 evocative Brazilian waltzes by Mignone. Written in two sets of 12, Mignone had completed the works just two years prior to his death. Mignone’s widow, Maria Josephina Mignone, a pianist herself who had recorded the works, encouraged Mascolo-David to “do justice to them” and sent her the unpublished manuscripts.
“I immediately felt an emotional affinity with that music,” Mascolo-David says. “I love the romantic content of the music, because I’m a romantic at heart. The harmonies and melodies he uses also are quite unusual. It’s a very unique and beautiful language that applies to the majority of the classical music of Brazil, which has a rich background of European and African influences.”
After releasing Volume I of Valsas Brasileiras in 2001, Mignone’s widow called Mascolo-David’s contribution “of enormous importance and beauty, possessing both a captivating sonority and a complete affinity with the romantic atmosphere of the waltzes.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution labeled the disc “a treasure. … She plays with a poetic, almost improvisatory spirit, in full command of the composer’s urbane voice.”
Mascolo-David’s formal solo recital release in April 2008 of Volume II in Lisbon secured further international recognition – the kind that resonates with her students, many of whom she recruits personally around the world. Her mastery of other composers also continues to inspire her instruction and pursuit of daunting performance challenges.
After accepting an invitation to record an intricate and complex piano concerto by American composer David Maslanka, Mascolo-David commented that it “consumed six months of my life. I thought it would be pastoral, but it was like World War III. It was rhythmically almost impossible to play.”
Mascolo-David has performed and recorded works by various other living composers, some of whom have written and dedicated pieces to her. Most recently she performed works by American composers Daniel McCarthy, Derek Bermel, and Augusta Read Thomas, along with works by CMU School of Music colleague David Gillingham.
Scholar. Performer. Professor.
Mascolo-David occupies that creative territory found exclusively in colleges like CMU’s School of Music. And she’s a good match.
“Because of its small size, we really do build one-on-one relationships and strong bonds with students,” she says. “Being a scholar/performer, I can share unusual experiences with them. The whole Taubman experience made me a very good teacher of technique. Not many pianists are equipped to do that. It has made a tremendous difference in my teaching and the performance of my students. They progress exponentially. I cannot imagine not teaching.”
The next challenge: Brazilian Fantasies
The demands of performance do occasionally take Mascolo-David away from the classroom. After receiving a 2008 CMU Research Excellence Grant to record Mignone’s Brazilian Fantasies for piano and orchestra, she is spending the spring 2009 semester preparing for an intensive one-day recording session in May with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. Advance preparations included having the never-before-published works shipped from a library in Rio de Janeiro so that they could be scored using music manuscript software.
The recording is scheduled for a summer 2009 release on CMU’s White Pine Music label. After Mignone, Mascolo-David will be watching for new treasured works and performance challenges.
“I believe we all have a mission on Earth,” Mascolo-David says. “I just know I have to play the piano, and I’ve never felt fully comfortable playing solely the so-called established repertoire. Things have just evolved in a very natural way. I’m a person who looks at opportunities when they present themselves and just goes with the flow. Thus, I have been making many fascinating discoveries and have chosen very interesting paths.
“Music makes my soul sing. It connects me to this larger source of energy – this universal energy.”
• By Mark Lagerwey